"Magic Skoolie," U-M grad converts bus into living space

Wednesday, June 13, 2018 - 2:57pm

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Courtesy of Jack Zellweger, The Ann Arbor News

After spending three weeks at a farm immersion program in Ireland, Tori Essex, a 2018 alum of the University of Michigan School of Art & Design, said she felt the most “clear-headed” since she was 8 years old. She relished the introspective time and human connections volunteering on the farm allowed her and wished she could do something similar after graduating. Her wish came true.

However, while farming is contingent upon nurturing a certain slice of land, Tori will not be anchored to any one farm. Instead, she plans to tour independent, organic farms throughout the country via “The Magic Skoolie,” a school bus she converted into a living space as part of her senior capstone project.

“I was farming for three weeks and I was super isolated and had a lot of time to think,” Essex said. “I was loving just being outside and volunteering and getting to know people I never would’ve met otherwise. I was thinking about how I wish that I could do that after I graduated, and just kind of float around like that a little bit. But the biggest risk in travelling all the time and volunteering and being posted is the living situation or the hosting situation, the accommodations that you might or might not get. So just for my own sense of security and comfort, I was like, ‘It would be great if I could create something that I could be comfortable in that I would be able to take with me from spot to spot.’”

At first, Essex thought she might live in a tiny house, hauling it from farm to farm using a truck. But after calculating the expenses, she realized it was costly and might be difficult to maneuver. Driving a bus would be much more economical and easy to handle, if she could convert one into a home.

While the idea of converting a school bus into a living space may seem niche, Essex researched the idea via internet and Instagram and discovered others had done it before. According to Essex’s adviser for the project, Rebekah Modrak, an associate professor at the Art & Design School, it even has precedent in movements from the ’70s.

“It has a history with the 1970s earth culture movement,” Modrak said. “I think a lot of (Tori’s) practices have this history in the ‘back to the land’ movement of the ’70s, and even the idea of transforming vehicles comes from that period.”

The idea may have precedent, but the scale of the project was unorthodox for a senior capstone, with many doubting its feasibility.

“I think a lot of students in that situation would’ve said, ‘I’m going to build a model of a bus being transformed,’ or ‘I’m going to make a book about a bus that’s being transformed,’” said Modrak. “They would’ve maybe found a way to do it in a proposal-based, hypothetical way.”

Transforming the bus into a living space took six months and a little under $5,000. Essex financed half the project through grants and raised the rest through a private GoFundMe and by selling t-shirts and stickers.

Eventually, Essex plans to travel in the bus with her boyfriend.

In an interview with MLive, Essex's boyfriend Evan Veasey, a Music, Theatre & Dance alum, said he is impressed by her ingenuity. 

"I was amazed at how much she was able to get done," said Veasey. "Six months ago, this was a bus full of seats, and now I can sit in it and drink coffee and take a bath in a tin tub. I think it's unbelievable." 

Despite the bus’s poor insulation during Michigan’s frigid winter, Essex also worked for hours outside. The process required completing a number of mechanical jobs, some she executed with her father’s help, including framing, adding plywood flooring, treating windows and finishing with stain and paint.

“A school bus is like a fortress,” Modrak said. “It’s so secure in order to protect the kids. It’s hard to take apart, to dissemble, something like that. It’s pretty intense, and there was a lot of material there that she needed to figure out how to take apart. And then she had this empty space, and she had to figure out how to build it up. One of the other challenges of course is that the bus is mobile. It’s not just converting a house into a bedroom. Imagine that entire house is going to be shaken up whenever you’re moving it around, when she uses it, which is pretty frequently.”  

Essex said the most challenging part of the project was removing the seats from the school bus.

“First, I tried to just unscrew them but I quickly realized that they were all kind of rusty, so they would just spin endlessly because they were essentially all rusted out,” Essex said. “Then I learned how to use an angle grinder, which is a saw thing that cuts through metal. So I had to cut each of the bolts off of the bottom of each leg on each seat. There were two legs on each seat and there were 22 seats. Almost 50 things of metal.”

The Magic Skoolie’s practicality is true to Essex’s nature.

“I’m super about utility,” Essex said. “I see it most reflected in the things I spend money on and how I dress. I definitely like things that make sense and have a function. I’m not super into things being theoretical or just being there for the sake of representing something.”

However, while the bus is functional, it was also created to be a piece of art.

“In Tori’s case, I think it’s significant art because it encompasses her life so much,” Modrak said. “It’s not something that’s detached from her, it’s something that’s fully about every part of her. It’s about where she’ll live, it’s about the choices she’s making for her life, it’s about the community she will surround herself with when she gets there.”

Some critics have raised questions about whether the converted school bus is true art. While Essex concedes it’s not fine art, she asserts it is still art nonetheless

“If somebody walks into the bus and is like, ‘You’re not actually an artist, you just like to have a cool RV thing,’” Essex said. “I’m like, ‘Huh, okay, you try it and then tell me if you feel like an artist or not.’ It’s just a difference of opinion and also a difference of semantics. I don’t think the bus is fine art, it’s totally different from a sculpture or a painting. But I just don’t really care about those kinds of things as far as the work that I create goes.”

Modrak agrees, asserting real art is created when someone feels something is important enough to think about and invest time into.

“That would be more of a question for the critic why they have such narrow definitions of art,” Modrak said. “There’s an artist, John Baldessari, who said that pointing with your finger at something, he’s defined that as the artistic act, that you identify something as important by pointing at it and asking us to look at it. That’s the nature of art. Once you realize that paying attention to something in a very thoughtful way is art, really you can’t define it as narrowly anymore.”

Essex and Modrak believe the bus makes a political statement about the ways in which people can choose to live their lives outside of what is considered ordinary.

“The choices that you have for your life are so broad, and you can imagine your future,” Modrak said. “You don’t have to feel like you have to get a certain job to support having an expensive apartment. You can create the space you want to live in, you can completely define the world that you’re a part of, and I think that’s what’s most exciting about (the Magic Skoolie).”

“With the bus, it’s super important to me that I actually use it for what I want to use it for, so it’s not just hypothetical work,” Essex said. “Like, ‘Oh, that’s a really cool idea.’ I want to travel in it and I want to not be tied down by a 9 to 5 job or having a mortgage or all of that craziness, at least not yet.”

Essex plans on leaving for her trip next fall. In the meantime, she will work for a year to raise money for the trip, “So I have enough money to fill my tank,” and fix small issues with the bus, such as painting the outside of the bus — only school buses can be yellow in the state of Michigan — fixing the wiring of the brake lights and trying to get the bus into the ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids.

“What I like about the bus is that I can use it and it’s a space that I can occupy and it feels like me and it’s comforting,” Essex said. “It literally feels like an extension of myself. That’s the part I’m most proud of.”